How It Works

ACT UP meetings were electric and empowering, tedious and frustrating, sexy and cruisy. The people at the meetings watched friends and loved ones in the prime of life get sick and die, and they experienced their society's indifference to this. By 1989 that community had started to fight back through ACT UP, and at Fight Back we will work together to experience this.

When you come to Fight Back, from the minute you arrive you are a person attending the ACT UP meeting at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Manhattan on March 13, 1989. You'll read more information about ACT UP on the Background Information page.

Your persona will be an actual person who was at that meeting. When you register for Fight Back, you will fill out a brief questionnaire so that you get matched with a persona that suits you. 

Fight Back requires some preparation. It will be simple and fascinating, and everything you need is on this website. It shouldn't take you more than an hour to get up to speed, plus a little more if you choose a persona with a specialized role or if you want to spend more time listening to an oral history.


Your persona

Most people will receive biographical information about their persona, including information about who they would likely spend their time with at the meeting. Even with this information, no one is expecting you to capture your persona with precise historical accuracy. You'll fill in details about your persona yourself. 

Whether your biographical information is extensive or sparse, you are absolutely empowered to make up facts and details to imbue your persona and the world of the meeting with life. But you are not trying to be zany or unrealistic. Keep what you invent within the realm of the probable.

Your persona does not need to match your age, gender, or background, and that’s true for everyone else. So base how you interact with other people on how they are interacting with you and not on what they look like.

The more preparation you do beforehand to really understand your persona’s backstory (What's going on in the world? What's happening in your persona's life right now? Who are the people your persona knows at the meeting?), the more you’ll set yourself up for success and contribute to everyone’s experience.


Are there really no actors?

Nope - though everyone is encouraged to use some of the techniques that an actor uses. But no one is expecting you to be a trained actor (or even an actor at all) to participate. You’ll succeed as long as you come prepared and try your best to engage within the world of the meeting.


How do I do it?

It's really as simple as this: from the minute you enter the meeting room until the minute you leave, you are your persona. Please do your absolute best to not break character.

There will inevitably be circumstances that come up during Fight Back that you weren’t expecting, or that contradict with what you prepared, or that involve details that your persona would know that you don’t know. In those situations:


The most important thing is to stay within the world of the ACT UP meeting on March 13, 1989. The easiest way to ruin your experience and other people's experience is to interact with people from the mindset of the present. Staying within the mindset of a pretend world is difficult. You will likely find your mind drifting back to the present time and circumstances a lot. That’s fine, and expected. Each time that happens, just re-engage in the world of the ACT UP meeting in 1989.


The most effective way to do that is to actually do something. Learn a chant, practice civil disobedience techniques, plan an action with your affinity group. It’s much easier to stay engaged in the imaginary circumstances when you are actively doing something. 


When things don't go smoothly

Sometimes things won’t go smoothly. For example, you might have decided that your persona is someone who’s never been to an ACT UP meeting before and doesn’t know anyone at the meeting. Then, someone might start interacting with you as though they are your best friend through ACT UP and you see each other multiple times a week. Probably the best thing you can do in that situation is to go along with it, and perhaps work that into your persona. Or you could tell them that they must be confusing you with someone else. Just trust your instincts, and concentrate more on doing things and experiencing things rather than getting in your head about wanting to control any kind of narrative.


If someone insists on interacting in the present, remember: That's not in the spirit of Fight Back! Let your persona process that person as unhinged (sounds kinda fun, right?). Or, do what your persona would naturally do with someone who’s not making sense: walk away. 

Oral history

Your background information may have a link to an oral history. You are certainly encouraged to watch/listen to the whole thing, though some of them are long. But please at least watch/listen to some of it, since it will tell you a lot about your persona. Remember, though, that the oral history was recorded decades after March 1989, so your persona would be younger, and the recording probably mentions details about your persona that hadn't happened by March 1989. These later details may inform your understanding of your persona, but when you are at Fight Back you should avoid incorporating details that haven't happened yet.


At the meeting

ACT UP meetings could be raucous. Some people barely paid attention to the main business. They’d be meeting with their separate groups, talking to friends on the side, or cruising in the back. So you can sit quietly and observe, if that’s what your persona would be doing. But try to actually engage in goings-on around the room. It's much easier to stay within the world of the meeting if you are actively doing something.

How long is Fight Back?

Probably 2-3 hours. But not everyone stays for all of an ACT UP meeting. So you (or, more precisely, your persona) can leave whenever. Anyone on the agenda, though, would ask someone to cover for them, so if you leave before your agenda item comes up, make sure to find someone else to take over for you.


When reading (and listening to) your persona's biographical information, pay special attention to your persona's friends/groups. You'll want to find and interact with these people at the meeting.

You may know other people who are coming to Fight Back, and your personas might know each other. If so, it is perfectly fine (and encouraged) to coordinate your backstories in advance. It is even fine to discuss what your personas expect to do at the meeting like, say, make a proposal for a poster to your affinity group. But avoid pre-planning or rehearsing specific scenarios. And make sure that, from the moment you enter the meeting room, you only interact as your personas.


By all means … flirt! Almost every description of ACT UP meetings emphasizes the sexual charge in the room. Really, what’s hotter than a room full of young, hot, passionate people fighting hard for an important cause? And remember, your persona doesn’t necessarily look like you and other people’s personas don’t necessarily look like them. So cruise, hit on people, proposition people. You don’t have to follow through after the meeting, but you are certainly welcome to!

Cell phones

Cell phones weren't around in 1989! Using your phone during Fight Back isn't in the spirit of the experience, and is a sure way to take yourself and everyone else out of the world. Be present and focused - and that means no phone! If you have any emergency, please leave the room.

What to wear

Feel free to come dressed as your persona, which in most cases would not be terribly different from what you might wear now (even though styles have changed since 1989). You certainly can't go wrong with any of the elements of what came to be known as the standard ACT UP look: jeans and a t-shirt, black boots, and a leather jacket.

Suggestions for things to do at the meeting